I hesitate to write about this, like I hesitate to write about anything these days. But the fact that Kings Langley Steiner School was finally closed following several inspections and the school administration’s failure to come to terms with and to rectify the previously identified deficiencies, means that it’s not just a question of accusations thrown around by angry parents, or the like, anymore; there’s the fact of an actual closure. There have been numerous reports in the media about it over the last year, but I haven’t collected them; I’ve just read them, and sometimes thought that some (not all, obviously) of it is simply a matter of Steiner education being Steiner education. Some of the things that have emerged are a bit… well, you know, these were all things that were known all the time. For example, the Steiner School Handbook has hardly been a secret — I know for a fact it came to the attention of education authorities about ten years ago, before public funding was granted to a few Steiner schools — and it’s been there all the time for anyone who cared. Specific Steiner practices and traditions are discussed as if they’re a complete surprise. I remember, vaguely, one newspaper was making a huge thing out of Steiner teachers’ practice of doing home-visits and being outraged about teachers giving children chocolate. Both these things, it seems, are today thought of as gateways to heavier types of child abuse. I can’t quite wrap my mind around this way of thinking. There were a lot more far-out things in the Handbook, but I guess when I can’t wrap my mind around the danger of chocolate gifts, others may find the pedagogical role of angels a bit hard to digest, thus simply ignoring it.
In any case, that stuff may have had little to do with the particular failings of Kings Langley, which, it appears, has been governed badly over a number of years, with a college of teachers and staff that has failed to meet any sort of external standards, actively resisted school inspections and ignored all the warnings that things were not going well. I think Jeremy Smith’s text and Tom Hart Shea’s comments (both on that text and on a previous one) sum it up. I put more weight on their views, than I would to anonymous disgruntled parents, because I understand how much they both would have wanted to be able to write something very different about that school. Their criticisms are quite severe; and their level of understanding of what went wrong is probably deeper than for the ordinary, let’s say, parent, given their degree of involvement. There are also strange things… In my wildest imagination, I couldn’t have imagined this:
I remember one upper school teacher devising a show for pupils to perform, which he called: “Ofsted – the musical.” The climactic moment of the piece was an Ofsted inspector being done to death with the copper rods from eurythmy lessons.
Maybe funny (you never know, perhaps this upper school teacher was a comic genius) but also… weird. The show is, of course, just an intriguing detail in a wider picture of decline; the rest of the less amusing failings, having a concrete impact on the running of the school, are more important to the school’s final fate. But still…
I’m not sure whether to find it ironic or just amusing, but the criticism now delivered by Jeremy Smith, former information officer of the Steiner Waldorf School Fellowship and formerly an eager soldier in the fight against criticism of waldorf schools, basically targets waldorf schools on similar grounds that the rest of us were trying to do when he (and some others) tried to combat us almost a decade ago. It may not always look that way, I mean similar, if you view it superficially, but I think many of the failings that critics were then pointing at had similar origins to the failings that Jeremy Smith reports. What people were seeing, when comparing their experiences, was that behind individual failings were (often? sometimes? I don’t know) systematic failings that were in some interesting ways universal, that is, there were likenesses all over the world. It’s hard to resist the temptation to tie this to, among other things, what Jeremy (and Tom) writes about the dysfunctional role played by a College of Teachers that lacked competence or even willingness to handle the school professionally. Other comments in the blog threads suggest that (unsurprisingly) Kings Langley is far from alone.
To the credit of Jeremy Smith, he has since amended his view of those unwanted criticisms of waldorf schools. He now writes:
… I became increasingly aware of the criticisms of Rudolf Steiner and Steiner Waldorf schools that were at that time starting to be widely disseminated online. I was upset by many of these criticisms, which did not accord with my understanding of Steiner or my experience of Waldorf schools. The sheer viciousness of the many misrepresentations I saw online led me to engage with some of these critics, in what with hindsight I now regard as naïve and well-meaning attempts to increase understanding and put the record straight. Today I would claim to have a more nuanced view of these criticisms, some of which were undoubtedly justified.
While I don’t believe — I really don’t — that every criticism is worth taking seriously (some are even based upon misunderstandings of what Steiner education is, albeit a misunderstanding that the Steiner movement is complicit in, for which it deserves criticism…), I think that many things that were said by critics back then would have been rather good (if I dare say so) for the Steiner waldorf movement to reflect upon rather than to brush aside or even to try to silence or to shut down. Back then, I don’t think any one of us actually thought that, ten years along the line, one of the most prestigious and oldest Steiner schools in Britain would be forced to close. I’m certain it would have been seen as a victory by the most “vicious” of critics — but also utopian. Interestingly, the schools downfall was entirely its own fault, and came at a time when external criticism (or “vicious” writings of former parents or students), and even more so criticism that had any substance or analysis to it (rather than being just complaints), had dwindled to almost nothing. And it will, I believe, have an impact on the Steiner movement, at least in Britain, though considering the role of the College of Teachers and the traditional but often dysfunctional arrangement for governing waldorf schools, perhaps schools in other parts of the world should take heed too.